The High Court has today handed down a damning judgment on the Government’s current arrangements for blind and partially sighted voters, declaring them unlawful and describing them as being “a parody of the electoral process”.
The judicial review challenge was brought by Rachael Andrews, who is blind, in relation to the Government’s failure to make the suitable arrangements to allow her to vote independently and secretly at the polling station. Rachael, 46, from Norwich, has myopic macular degeneration which means that her eyesight deteriorated and she has been registered blind since 2000.
The judgment will impact the around 350,000 people who are registered blind or partially sighted in the UK.
The Representation of the People Act 1983 (as amended) allows the Government to specify a device to be used in the polling station that allows blind and partially sighted people to vote “without any need for assistance”. Currently the Government specify the use of a Tactile Voting Device (TVD), a sheet of transparent plastic which fits on top of the ballot paper and has a number of flaps that correspond to the various places on the ballot paper where voters are able to mark an ‘X’ next to candidates’ names. There have been a number of problems reported with polling stations either not having the TVDs at all or the TVDs being the wrong size for the particular ballot paper.
In this legal case Rachael successfully argued that, even when stocked and of the correct size, a more fundamental problem is that TVDs do not allow blind and partially sighted people to vote independently as they still need help from the Presiding Officer (the official in charge of the polling station) or a member of their close family to read to them the names of the candidates and the order in which they appear on the ballot paper. This information is not contained on the TVD and there is therefore no way for a blind voter to know which flap on the TVD corresponds to which candidate.
Rachael further argued that the UK lags behind many other countries which have found other systems to allow blind voters to vote more easily including audio voting booths and telephone voting.
The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) provided a detailed witness statement in support of the case and highlighted the research they have undertaken regarding the challenges faced by blind and partially sighted people when voting. Their latest report ‘Turned Out 2017’ found that only one in four blind and partially sighted voters felt the current system let them vote independently and in secret. In addition, their ‘Turned Out 2016’ report showed that almost two thirds of those that did not vote said they would have done if it had been more accessible.
The Government’s arguments were comprehensively rejected by the High Court in today’s judgment. Para 22 of the judgment states:
“A device that does no more than enable blind voters to identify where on a ballot paper the cross can be marked, without being able to distinguish between one candidate from another, does not in any realistic sense enable that person to vote. Enabling a blind voter to mark ballot papers without being able to know which candidate she is voting for is a parody of the electoral process established under the rules”.
In light of this, the Court declared that the Government’s current arrangements to be unlawful as TVDs simply do not allow blind and partially sighted people to vote without any need for assistance.
“I am extremely pleased by today’s judgment. The right to vote independently and in secret is fundamental to any democratic society and it is extremely frustrating that I have had to bring this legal challenge in order to force the Government to make suitable arrangements for blind voters.
“It is clear from my own experiences, as well as the research carried out by the RNIB, that TVDs are not fit for purpose and leave blind and partially sighted people at a significant disadvantage when it comes to voting. This lack of accessibility discourages many blind people from actually voting.
“Despite all the technological advances now available that enable people with disabilities to lead an independent life, I find it immensely depressing that, when it comes to voting, one of the most important responsibilities a person has in a democracy, the only aid available to a blind voter is a piece of plastic that doesn’t really work.
“The Government now need to accept today’s judgment and urgently take the necessary steps to allow blind voters such as myself to vote independently and in secret in future elections. There are many crucial issues facing this country and blind and partially sighted people have the same rights as everyone else to have their voices heard at election time.”
Sean Humber, Rachael’s solicitor at law firm Leigh Day, said:
“The Government’s far-fetched attempt to reduce the act of voting to simply marking a ballot paper, while conveniently ignoring the need for voters to also know who the candidates are and where they appear on the ballot paper, is an insult to blind and partially sighted voters, who should be able to exercise their voting rights in the same as everyone else – secretly and independently. The fact that the technology exists and is used in other countries to allow blind people to vote independently, makes the Government’s inflexibility all the more unacceptable.
“We are pleased that the court has found in favour of our client that the Government’s current arrangements fail to enable blind people to vote independently and are unlawful. The Government now needs to stop dragging its feet and take urgent action to comply with this judgment.”
Richard Holmes, Public Affairs Manager at RNIB, said:
“We welcome the Judge’s decision to find in favour of Rachael and to state that the use of a Tactile Voting Device in its current form does not enable blind and partially sighted people to vote independently and in secret. It is completely unacceptable that in 2019 blind and partially sighted people are still unable to vote without assistance from another person.
“For years, RNIB has consistently raised concerns about the Tactile Voting Device not being fit for purpose. We have supported Rachael with this case, providing a witness statement and sharing our detailed research into access to elections.
“In today’s judgment, the High Court clearly agrees. 350,000 people registered blind or partially sighted in the UK now need a real commitment from Government that it will urgently take action to offer an alternative that will allow them to cast their vote in a truly independent and secret way in the next elections.”
Tim Buley QC and David Lock QC, both of Landmark Chambers, were instructed by Rachael in this matter. Rachael is grateful to the Legal Aid Agency for funding this case.